Lu West on creative inspiration, why small is best and following your passion
Lu West is a South African printmaker and illustrator, working and living in London. Producing bespoke work from her studio in Kew Gardens, Lu uses traditional silkscreen print techniques to create her bold, limited edition wall art.
From animals in their natural habitats to seascapes, plants and flowers, through her experimentation with scale and pattern, Lu creates a unique set of aesthetics – all available in print runs of just 100 or less.
Her designs have been used on products for Magpie, such as mugs and plates, as well as on greeting cards for Black Olive.
We recently caught up with Lu to discuss her creative process, sources of inspiration and the benefits of staying small...
Firstly, please tell us a bit about yourself
I’m an artist, printmaker and illustrator from Cape Town and I’ve been living in London for the last 10 years. Lu West is a shortened version of my full name Luzelle van der Westhuizen. I changed my brand name from Mengsel to Lu West last year, as I felt that I wanted a more personal connection with my customers by using my own name.
I create limited edition silkscreen prints in my studio in Kew Gardens, and sell them on various online marketplaces, art galleries and my own online store.
When did you first discover illustration and printmaking?
As a child, I was always drawing or painting something. I was the kid who would doodle all over my maths homework (and not pay any attention to the numbers). It felt natural to go into a creative direction and I ended up studying Jewellery Design and Manufacturing at the Cape Town University of Technology. After graduation, I caught the travel bug and ended up staying in London.
Where did you learn the traditional silkscreen printing process?
After leaving my job as a project manager for a textile designer, I knew that I wanted to work for myself. I just didn’t know what it was going to be yet and I needed some time to figure it out. I’d already started with some creative ideas and a vision of a specific aesthetic that I wanted to follow, when I found out about a short course in textile printing at East London Printmakers. The course was only for three nights, but something just clicked and I knew that this type of printmaking would be the perfect way to express my illustrative art.
I searched for a studio space where I could start working on my own print designs and found Kew Art Studio, which is not far from my home in South West London.
There are many other printmaking techniques that I would like to explore, but I feel that screen printing really suits my style of illustration, which is simple and bold. I love colour, and with screen printing the result is just so vibrant. I still feel like I’m learning about the process every day, so that keeps things exciting.
Your work is printed in an edition of 100 or less per screen. Why is that? Could you be tempted to produce work on a mass scale?
I feel that it adds value to my prints to keep the editions small. I find that my customers enjoy owning a fine art print that is quite unique, yet still affordable. I can see how it can be tempting to work on a mass scale, but I truly enjoy putting a lot of love and effort into each print.
You’re originally from South Africa, how does the creative scene differ there compared to the UK?
The creative scene in South Africa is incredibly vibrant. My sister-in-law, Liani Douglas, and her husband Jan are the owners of Cape Town-based architecture and design studio Douglas & Company (Do&Co). I’m living vicariously through their Instagram feed of beautiful South African interior products and projects! In the last couple of years there has been a creative surge of regeneration in the inner city areas of Cape Town and Johannesburg. This is leading to some really interesting new creative labels in interiors and fashion.
Who or what inspires you?
I get a lot of inspiration from the creative energy of London. I love this city! It is just such a privilege to have access to amazing art galleries and museums. There is always something new to see and do. The best way to get inspired is to go out in the city with my sketchbook.
That being said, I’m also permanently glued to Instagram and Pinterest (aren’t we all!) I find it very interesting to follow fellow artists and creative people, see their work process and what they’re up to.
Surface design blogs like Print and Pattern and interior blogs like Decor8 and Apartment Therapy keep me up to date with what is happening in terms of colour trends. It is important to always envision how a piece of art will look in a home setting, but I don’t follow the trends slavishly and try to focus on my own creative process.
Illustration and art heroes include Charley Harper, Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard and Henri Matisse. I’m a big fan of Mid Century Design!
What has been the most challenging part of being freelance?
It can get lonely at times and you really have to trust your gut instinct that you are making the right creative and business decisions. Sometimes it does feel like you’re living in a bit of a bubble.
And what are the best bits?
It really makes my day when I get fantastic feedback from a customer about their newly acquired print. I try to focus on creating art that brings happiness and joy.
Was there ever a moment when you lost passion for your work? If yes, how did you get it back?
About three years ago, I decided to have my designs printed on baby wear. It was a nightmare dealing with very high import costs and in the end, I just decided to totally refocus on what made me happy. My business has thrived ever since. I would love to collaborate more with existing brands, but for myself, it just works when I can keep it small and keep control over the creative process.
"It is really easy to just go the mass production route, but the handmade quality of my prints really shines through in my work."
Where do you find clients and collaborators?
Mostly through social media and trade shows that I’ve done. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great clients and collaborators over the years. I would love to illustrate a children’s book in the future, as I think it really suits my illustration style.
Can you describe your creative process? How do you create a piece of work from start to finish?
I start in my sketchbook with rough pencil drawings and finish them with black markers. When I’m happy with the design, I scan it into Photoshop or Illustrator, and from there I tweak the images and play around until I’m happy with the composition.
After that, I create templates of separate layers that I need and head to my studio, where I cover my mesh screens with photo emulsion. After exposing the screens in the darkroom, the emulsion is washed out and the positive and negative spaces of the screen will appear. The screens are clamped down onto my worktable and the ink is pulled through with a squeegee onto paper. I love mixing my own vibrant colours and the big reveal after the ink has been transferred to paper. I will repeat this process for multiple layers.
I’m always sharing my silkscreen print work process with Instagram followers and readers of my blog.
What is your work set up like?
My print studio is an old Victorian school building in Kew Gardens. It's a space shared by painters and printmakers. The rest of the time, I’m based at home in South West London where I run the business and creative side of my art. I love the freedom of being able work on my own time schedule and just go to the Victoria and Albert museum or the Tate Modern when I need a big dose of inspiration.
Does your work follow a particular theme/style?
Favourite motifs include delightful animals in their natural habitats, seascapes, plants and flowers. Playing with scale and pattern, the result is a graphic and unique aesthetic. Colour is a big part of my work and the result is joyful and bold.
What project are you most proud of and why?
I really enjoyed designing a collection of home products called 'Abode' for UK giftware company Magpie (under my previous label name Mengsel). I really got a kick out of seeing coffee mugs, espresso cups, plates, storage tins and tea towels with my prints on them in the shops. I drink my morning brew from of my Whale, Mouse, Swallow and Deer coffee cups every day.
Who is your dream collaborator?
I adore Scandinavian labels like Marimekko and Ferm Living. Creating a line of surface print designs for them would just be a dream. I would also love to collaborate with Made.com to create a collection of fine art prints. The Conran Shop and Skandium stock an amazing selection of designer pieces. Getting my prints in there would be wonderful.
What advice would you give to someone starting out as an illustrator?
Try to create your own style and use what makes you different to stand out.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I think 95-year-old style icon Iris Apfel sums it up best: 'You have to try it. You only have one trip, you’ve got to remember that.'
What are you currently working on? And what’s next?
I’m working on a new collection of colourful butterfly prints, which will be available in my store soon. I’ve also collaborated with Black Olive Studio, creating a line of greeting cards, which will launch early 2017. Next year, I would love to take on more freelance illustration work, as well as continuing and expanding my limited edition silkscreen print collection.